The new owners of Deerfield Golf Course in Madison County are working long hours after saving what was once one of Mississippi’s top-ranked golf courses from becoming a casualty of bankruptcy. Everywhere they look, the ownership team and 22-person staff sees challenges and needs. However, they also see opportunities and feel good that they are saving not only a golf club and its staff, but an entire community, as well.
“This is home for me,” said Leigh Brannan, a resident of the Deerfield community as well as longtime employee and now co-owner of Deerfield Golf Course. “I was the fifth member of the club in 1979, and I’ve lived here since 1984. Over that time, I’ve been everything from bartender to head golf pro.
“If we had not been able to work out a deal and purchase the club, it would have been devastating, not only for the golf course, but for the Deerfield homeowners, too. If we had not opened in May, it might have been the end of the Deerfield Golf Course forever — it might not have ever reopened — and homeowners would have seen their property values fall by maybe 20 percent or more. So, we feel good about helping save the community and the golf course.”
“I just love the golf course,” said Trey Denton, a member of the new ownership team who was born and raised in Deerfield and has been working as an unpaid staff member at the club since the Deerfield acquisition. Like Brannan, Denton had a noted amateur and professional golf career and has fond memories of playing the challenging Deerfield course. He, too, has his heart at Deerfield.
“We have so many things to fix; so much to do,” Denton said, “but we’re already right at break-even (in membership) now, and we should be full by the end of the month. I feel good about where we are.”
Denton’s optimism is in sharp contrast to the cloud that hung over Deerfield for the past few years. Colonial Country Club of Jackson opened the Deerfield Golf Course, located between Madison and Canton near Gluckstadt, in 1980 to better serve its growing membership. Deerfield was unique from conception — it is one of only eight golf courses in the world to be designed by legendary golfer Byron Nelson, and noted golf architect J.D. Finger built it.
Upon opening, Deerfield quickly became one of the state’s highest-rated courses (it still ranked as the state’s #2 course just a handful of years ago). The par-72, 6,900-yard championship course proved challenging with its tree-lined fairways, numerous water hazards and large, undulating, slick greens. Over its history, it has played host to nine Mississippi Opens, four Mississippi men’s and two women’s amateur championships and 12 PGA Tour qualifying tournaments.
Unfortunately, Colonial Country Club did not fair as well. Once boasting more than 1,000 members, Colonial’s membership began a steady decline to a mere 300 individuals. Struggling financially, Colonial, which would subsequently declare bankruptcy, started cutting costs at Deerfield, and the course’s playability and attractiveness suffered.
Hoping to reverse the bad fortunes, Brannan was part of a group that made an offer to Colonial for Deerfield about four years ago, but they couldn’t work a deal. Retired from the club but still working part-time to help offset staff cuts, Brannan had given up on owning Deerfield when Colonial came calling about eight months ago to see if Brannan was still interested.
With that, a new ownership team was organized consisting of Brannan; Denton; greens superintendent Bryan Deweese; and club members Phil Pollack, Stacy Hughes and Ed Grantham. The members approved the proposed transaction and the team thought they had a deal when the bank suddenly rejected the offer as too low. It was then March, and without a deal the owners could not hit their deadline of an early-May opening.
“We all thought it was over,” Brannan said remembering that day. “The staff had all gone home thinking they were unemployed. I was just sick — so disappointed. Then, my phone rang at 4:30 that afternoon and I heard we had a verbal agreement. I couldn’t believe it.”
Since then, there has been a flurry of activity to get the course back in top form after years of neglect. Denton said the fairways are in great shape, and retaining Deweese means Deerfield’s tricky greens remain a challenge. However, there are a myriad of problems, from silted-up water hazards and cart path issues to lack of chemicals/fertilizer and equipment for course upkeep.
The clubhouse is even a bigger challenge. Now 35 years old, the 26,000-square-foot facility is in bad need of renovations. The building has air conditioning problems, bathrooms with holes in the walls, dated furnishings and a pro shop that Brannan calls “embarrassing.”
Still, there is optimism. Deerfield, which will operate as a private club, has already landed more than 250 members, boosted by a special membership fee of $250 per month, no joining fee and no minimum food/beverage requirement. The new owners have set the membership limit at 400, which they expect to meet this month.
With the infusion of capital, Brannan and Denton said they can begin the repairs needed to return Deerfield to prominence.
“Our goal is to get Deerfield back in the top five, top 10 in the state,” Brannan said. “We are going to restore it to its prestigious position in Mississippi golf. Actually, we’re going to make it better than it has ever been.”